This past season in Washington was packed with plays by or about African Americans. Arena Stage presented “Every Tongue Confess,” starring Phylicia Rashad; Lynn Nottage’s “Ruined,” about rape in the Congo; and “Trouble in Mind,” a play by Alice Childress about race in show business. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company presented “Bootycandy,” Robert O’Hara’s play about growing up gay and African American.
Theater Alliance, a mostly white group founded to “illuminate the interests of D.C.’s diverse populations,” presented a mesmerizing “Black Nativity” at H Street Playhouse. The Ford’s Theatre 2010-11 season opened with “Sabrina Fair,” by Samuel A. Taylor, which featured a black actress in the role famously played by Audrey Hepburn. “Fela!” the energetic real-life tale of legendary Nigerian singer Fela Kuti, produced by Jay-Z, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, played to sellout audiences at none other than the Shakespeare Theatre Company.
The season “shows the hunger for black theater in this city,” says Glenn Alan, executive director of the D.C. Black Theater Festival, which showcases national and international playwrights of color. But all these shows were presented by “mainstream theater companies or on mainstream” stages. “Not by black theater companies with their own spaces,” Alan said.
Jennifer L. Nelson, who for years led African Continuum Theatre, the city’s only full-time, professional African American theater troupe, says: “One of the things we are seeing happening in mainstream theater are more plays by African American writers being done in the mainstream than before.”
Nelson, now Ford’s director of special programming, said, “All regional theaters include plays by African Americans in their seasons.”
While plays by or about blacks have been proliferating in Washington, black theater companies have not. The historic Takoma Theatre is black-owned, but for years has sat shuttered in Takoma Park. The legendary D.C. Black Repertory Company, founded in the 1970s by Robert Hooks, is gone. Its successor, D.C. Rep Stage produces plays in residence at Howard Community College. African Continuum, which usually stages its performances at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, has reduced its season.
“We have seen a number of our theaters go under,” said Nelson. “Since the economic downturn, it has gotten worse. What is the state of black theater in Washington? This question keeps being asked over and over again. . . . I wish I had an answer that would make it clear. Because it is not 100 percent clear to anybody.”
One fact is clear, Nelson added: “This is not endemic to Washington, D.C.”
The national economic crisis has hit theater companies across the country hard.